COVID-19 eats away at kebab restaurants in Istanbul’s iconic Aksaray district

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Turkey’s restaurants hard, with a string of restrictions thwarting their operations and revenue.

The impact is most evident in Istanbul’s Aksaray district, famed for its kebab restaurants which stretch for blocks. It is during the holy month of Ramadan, which began mid-April this year, that Aksaray sees the most traffic, as large crowds arrive to break their fast at the district's abundant eateries.

Nowadays, the restaurants are not hosting anyone, nor are they open for iftar. COVID-19 restrictions, including a ban on dine-in services and reduced hours, have left Aksaray’s kebab restaurants in silence.

Many restaurants shut down after a year of trying to stay afloat, and owners are calling on the government to temporarily halt taxes and social security fees.

Turkey began applying pandemic measures to the hospitality sector last April, a month after the first case was announced in the country. After a short-lived easing of measures, restaurants were again reduced to delivery only in November, with hours restricted from 7 am to 7 pm.

The country’s more than 100,000 restaurants employ an estimated two million people, Turkish Restaurant and Entertainment Association (TURYID) chairman Kaya Demirer told Cumhuriyet newspaper in January. 10 percent of these businesses never reopened after the first wave of the pandemic, he said.

The restaurant industry generated revenues of 135 billion lira ($18.2 billion) in 2019, but this dropped to around 60 to 70 billion lira ($9.4 billion) in 2020, according to Demirer.

Ahmet Usta, a kebab shop owner in Aksaray, said this Ramadan was the slowest he had ever seen in his 14 years in the business.

Aksaray would normally be teeming with people until 1 a.m. in the morning, hosting Istanbul’s locals and visitors alike, all seeking out the district’s famed offerings.

Ahmet explains that one kebab chef runs the restaurant, where there would normally be three, and that for the entirety of yesterday they sold a total of 23 kebab wraps and delivered 39 portions of flatbread with meat to construction workers. This for a restaurant that frequently had ques around the corner and was often forced to turn customers away due to an inability to meet demand.

“This coronavirus storm has ruined us,’’ he said. “We are lost as to how to continue on our path. We basically went through any savings that we had during the 15 months after the pandemic hit. Meanwhile, we have had to let so many employees go.’’

Other than home deliveries, no sales are taking place in Ramadan, he explains. How is he supposed to find money to purchase a delivery vehicle he asks, when people at home during the pandemic don’t need to order food from a restaurant. 

“We have to close early in any case,’’ he adds. “God help us all.’’

Hacı Usta, manager of popular restaurant Urfalı Hacı Usta, explains that the eatery has decreased its staff from 45 to seven since the pandemic hit, and the business is in the red by 500,000 liras ($59,600).

“The government is helping us,’’ he explains, pointing to the short-term allowance stipend. But with the deficit the restaurant is facing, it is difficult to stay afloat, he adds.

“There is a double standard,’’ he said. “Public transportation is teeming with people, as are shopping centres, but restaurants are banned.’’

He thinks the government should do more for restaurants, including assistance in paying bills, taxes and rent. 

At Aksaray’s famous Horhor Cafe, owner Bekir explains that business owners have hit rock bottom and are struggling to even cover their rent.

“There is no income. Metros and metro buses are operating, but cafes are closed. We are having a hard time making sense of all this. We rarely get any customers. This is the second Ramadan where we have been closed. Just two years ago we were doing so well,” Bekir said.

An employee at Urfalım Ocakbaşı, Adnan Erişmiş, echoes the sentiments of others in the business, saying that the owners have depleted any savings they had over the past year.  

Around 25 percent of restaurants may never reopen following the lifting of pandemic restrictions, according to the TURYID.

But the scene in Aksaray points to much bigger damage in the sector.

“Nowadays, people are operating on borrowed money and lines of credit,’’ according to Erişmiş. “Shopkeepers have closed down everywhere. Property owners gave a two-to-three-month grace period, but after that it has been difficult. I can’t see this situation improving, even if the pandemic was to miraculously end.”